My journey in the hunt for cartoons began about seven years ago. But it was two more years later that I started tracing Malayalam ones for my PhD research. When I started out though, I hadn’t really figured out what exactly to work on.

One should remember here that studies on Malayalam cartoons are scant, in spite of the fact that there is so much to study. But the available ones gave me some background information into the origin of this medium in Malayalam. The picture wasn’t quite clear though. It was with this in the back of my mind that I went to Thiruvananthapuram in the hope of finding some repositories or archives that could lead me in the right direction. It was such a journey that led me to Prasanna Kumar, the librarian at the Sri Chittira Thirunal Library. Soon, he would have a pivotal role to play in my quest.

The library did have a good collection of the early magazines in Malayalam, and it was from this collection that we got hold of Vidooshakan, the magazine which published the first cartoon in Malayalam. And just like that, I had the starting point of my research. From the material collected from the library with Kumar’s help, I went on to write my thesis, tracing the origin and evolution of cartooning in Malayalam across the first forty years.

The famine cartoon, a hundred years ago

As of October 2019, that first cartoon published by Vidooshakan, titled “Mahakshamadevatha”, has turned a hundred years old. Even as there have been a few attempts at reminiscing about cartooning in Malayalam in this regard, none of them says anything more about the magazine in depth.

Vidooshakan started publication in the year 1919. Edited by PS Neelakanta Pillai, it was printed at the Manomohanam Press in Quilon (present day Kollam, a district in Kerala). Later on, it was published from Vidyavilasam Press in Paravur (another town in Quilon). Cartoonist Sudheernath assumes that this must have been because of the ease of printing images at Vidyavilasam, considering the fact that the first cartoon in Vidooshakan as well as in Malayalam was printed here.

Vidooshakan lasted for at least a decade and a half, though there was a break for a couple of years in between. The editor’s notices and remarks published in the magazine also tell us that its subscriber base crossed the seas and reached the islands of Malaya and Singapore. So what was Vidooshakan’s brand of journalism?

Mahakshamadevatha ‘The Great Famine Goddess,’ Cartoon, Vidooshakan,October 1919. The First Cartoon Published in Malayalam. (Courtesy, Sri Chithira Thirunal Memorial Library, Trivandrum).

Published in the aftermath of the First World War, its first cartoon, titled “Mahakshamadevatha”, (“The great famine goddess”), depicts famine as a demon killing people, even as some of them try to run away as a few others are shown as running from the demon in their fright. Amidst all this stands a British officer, fully clad in uniform, hat and boots. The officer does not seem to be of much help as he himself is left as a mere spectator.

On the other hand, a tapioca plant is depicted in an anthropomorphic form, carrying and thereby saving a frightened person from the demon of famine – suggesting that the only option for commoners were tapiocas and other tuber crops.

Four years later

“We have always tried to be true to our policy of speaking in the mildest of manners, without stabbing, shooting or hurting anyone,” says the editor’s note from the July 1922 issue. The March 1922 article proves to be a good example of this stance. It responded to an article published by another journal accusing a member of the royal family of Cochin of inciting riots. The crux of the article by Vidooshakan was to strongly underline the fact that mad ravings and abusive language against someone – even if that person is accused of such a severe crime – is intolerable.

However, the author also made it a point to say that “this does not mean that the editor has any love or bias towards the royalty of Cochin, towards the accused member of the royal family, or the riots that followed.” Rather, if the accused was involved in any such action, they should be punished, undoubtedly. The journalists who write such articles, on the other hand, should be sent to mental asylum, the article concluded. This critical attitude also extended towards the rulers, as is obvious from the next instance.

‘Kerala Chandrika and the Government’s Threat,’ Cartoon, Vidooshakan, April 1922, (Courtesy, Sri Chithira Thirunal Memorial Library, Trivandrum).

Vidooshakan was also committed towards freedom of the press, and came out in support of its compatriots. In 1922, a notice was issued by the government against Kerala Chandrika (a journal published from Kollam, representing the Malayali Muslims), accusing it of insulting the British government. Responding to this act in the strongest of words, Vidooshakan said that having read the said article, it could not find anything insulting towards the British government.

In addition to defending Kerala Chandrika, Vidooshakan also ridiculed the government and its knowledge of the Malayalam language. In other words, for Vidooshakan, a lack of knowledge in the language was the only basis on which this decision could have been made. It even suggested that the dewan must be behind the whole case despite his subordinates’ opinions against it. Clearly, Vidooshakan did not shy away from criticising or ridiculing the government or the state machinery as and when it found necessary.

In that sense, Vidooshakan reminds us how the media used to be responsible about what it wrote and the position that it took. It is also a reminder for us as the public to expect more from the current media.

As mentioned earlier, studies on cartoons and their history are quite scant in Kerala in particular. The scenario is not really very different across the country. When one reads this alongside the fact that this medium has a rich and vast heritage in the state of Kerala as well as India as a whole, the starkness of this situation becomes clearer. One important reason for this is the difficulties in collecting the materials.

Whether it is the microfilms or dusty and crumbling bound volumes, our conservation methods are hardly reader friendly. In fact these methods hardly conserve these precious materials at the first place. There have been several instances where pages containing cartoons were found to be torn off, during my material collection. In certain instances, the cartoons published on the cover pages were lost because the binders tore the cover off while binding the volumes.

If, even at this late stage, we don’t take the necessary steps to conserve these treasure troves of history, soon there won’t be much left.